Porto – the last city on the itinerary of our visit to Portugal. We visited four cities, some of them are well-known, some not so much, but each of them is unique in a different way. Tomar is connected with the history of the Templars and about the others, they say: “Coimbra studies, Braga prays, Porto works and Lisbon gets the money…”
Porto or Oporto (as known in English) is one of the most famous Portuguese cities. Its name comes from the port (porto). Once upon a time, there was a Roman double town Portu and Cale. When both parts became united a new name was created – Portucale (nice port) which later gave the name to the whole kingdom. The city gave its name also to the wine which is famous all over the world. Strong and sweet port wine is the “official” aperitif drink for the citizens not only in Porto but in the whole country. Even the soldiers of the British Army raise their glasses with port wine to the Queen. According to the members of the Association of Port Wine Shippers from 1754, the port wine should be felt like fire in the stomach and burn as gunpowder. It should have ink colour, be sweet like Brazilian sugar and be as aromatic as Indian spices.
The most important sights in the cities we have visited were located on the hills. In Porto, we had to walk uphill and again downhill all the time. The city is extremely hilly. Hard for the feet but pleasant for the eye. They also say about Porto that it is a big city in small – its buildings are crammed in a small area.
We walked through the maze of darker streets with narrow houses cramming tightly next to each other, with hanging laundry, small balconies, flowerpots and satellite dishes. Some of them were in a poor condition, with plaster peeling off, broken window shutters and cracks on the walls… As if the past had been conserved here.
However, some defects were very cleverly used by street artists.
What a surprise it was for us when a square with a church, monastery, tower, palace or even with the city hall suddenly appeared in front of us. There are so many imposing buildings in the historical center of the city that in 1996 it was put on the UNESCO list of the world heritage sites.
One monument can be seen from any part of the city, it is the bell tower dos Clérigos. Although solitary but proud it is rising up to heaven and as a raised finger points out the fact that it is the highest church tower in Portugal.
From time to time a heritage tram rattled in the street, and a woman appeared in the window on the top floor of one of the houses and let out a yell: “Pedróóó!“ There was a group of children playing in front of the house, one of them waved to the woman in the window and continued in his game. I was wondering where and when for the last time I saw children playing freely on the street?
We also stopped at the railway station. In the main entrance, there are 20 000 tiles azulejos arranged in large pictures. Waiting for your train you can read the illustrated history of Portugal on the walls of the station.
They say Porto mostly works. It is possible that on working days its inhabitants are moving at a hurried (non-Portuguese) pace, that they do not have time and the topics of their conversation are dates, bonds and taxes. We arrived in Porto on Sunday and I can tell you that people in Porto are also capable to enjoy their free time very well! There was relaxed energy everywhere.
But the fact that we arrived here on Sunday had also a disadvantage. We could not go to the bookshop Livraria Lello & Irmão. Well. We did not need to buy any bestseller but we would have liked to see this “book cathedral” – one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. Here the first chapters of Harry Potter were born and that is why the number of visitors increased radically. People working in the bookshop want to have a rest at least on Sundays so they close it. I understand them. And how it was with Harry Potter? Some time ago British author Joanne Rowling had lived in Porto, where she had taught English and sat around in this bookstore in her free time. Inspired by the black cloaks of Portuguese students (Coimbra!) she had slowly put together the story about the young wizard. The interior and the spiral staircase in the bookstore served later as props in the film about Harry Potter.
We stopped at the bronze statue of another famous Porto man. It is Henry the Navigator, the son of King John I. In 1415 he captured the Moorish port of Ceuta. This was the first important step in the development of Portuguese exploration. Two years later Henry gained the appointment as the Grand Master of the Military Order of Christ which had its headquarters at Tomar(!). Henry supported all the exploratory expeditions from here. Every year he sent one or two ships on a voyage. But he had never personally participated in any expedition. No one used the nickname “Navigator” during his lifetime. The term was given to him in the 19th century. Henry is standing on the pedestal directing his right hand to some new voyages and discoveries which brought so much glory to his country. Near his monument, there is the magnificent Stock Exchange Palace where merchants and bankers used to meet.
It might have been good that it was Sunday. We did not go to any museum or any other cultural institution. Instead, we were walking, watching and absorbing the amazing and relaxed atmosphere of the city and its inhabitants. Mostly we enjoyed it on the shore of the river Douro. Almost every part of Porto deserves to be on a postcard but we especially liked the view of the riverbank with the double-decked metal arch bridge Ponte Dom Luís I.
Once only temporary bridges used to be built. They were not reliable like the pontoon bridge which collapsed and sunk under the weight of fleeing people and soldiers in the war with France in 1809. More than 4000 people lost their lives. The tragic incident is documented on this relief.
Excursion ships sailed under the bridge which was designed by Théophile Seyrig, a colleague of Gustav Eiffel. Small boats (rabelo) were anchored at the riverbank. As the fastest and most efficient means, they are still used to transport barrels of port wine. We could see the cellars, where the famous port wine matured in front of us on the opposite riverbank, and read the names of the companies.
Descendants of long-ago navigators were racing on bikes. Young girls were dashing at high speed and yelling: “Go away!!! I am coming!” Cars stopped to prevent a collision. But nobody was angry, nobody rebuked the girls, nobody was scared that they could fall into the river. Local children are taught to love and respect the river which is a life-giving artery of their city.
The evening was coming, restaurants were filling up with people. Women tried to sell embroidered handkerchiefs, table cloths and other more or less useful things. You could hear a Portuguese guitar and brave persons were dancing their solo directly in front of the other sitting guests. Grilled fish could be smelled. In Portugal, they have more than a thousand recipes of how to prepare fish but the traditional local dish in Porto is something totally different. Do you know what it is? If not, you will find the answer here.
We went to the restaurant Fish Fixe on the riverbank located in an old stone and wooden house. It was so small that we were worried about how to get in with all our Portuguese friends. Through the open windows, we could still watch what was happening outside on the shore. Lamps turned on their lights which were reflected on the river surface. A flock of gulls flew down to the water. Friends and families were vividly chatting at full tables. Delicious food and a sip of port wine brought people closer together, music was mixed with singing in the air, joy with melancholy and friendship with love. We tried to absorb this atmosphere as much as possible and to keep it for hard days that will come again…
Scientists have done some research on how much time a person needs to fall in love with somebody. But how much is needed to fall in love with a city or country? Sometimes only a few days, impressions and moments are enough…